The world today has been conditioned, overwhelmingly, to visualize. The picture has almost replaced the word as a means of communication. Tabloids, educational and documentary films, popular movies, magazines, and television surround us. It almost seems that the existence of the word is threatened. The picture is one of the principal mediums of interpretation, and its importance is thus growing ever vaster. Today the challenge to photographers is great because we are living in a momentous period. History is pushing us to the brink of a realistic age as never before. I believe there is no more creative medium than photography to recreate the living world of our time. Photography gladly accepts the challenge because it is at home and in its element: namely, realism – real life – the now. In fact, the photographic medium is standing at its own crossroads of history, possibly at the end of its first major cycle. A decision as to which direction it shall take is necessary, and a new chapter in photography is being made – as indeed many new chapters are now taking the place of many older ones.
The time comes when we progress, must go forward, must grow. Else we wither, decay, die. This is as true for photography as for every other human activity in this atom age.
It is more important than ever to assess and value photography in the contemporary world. To understand the now with which photography is essentially concerned, it is necessary to look at its roots, to measure its past achievements, to learn the lessons of its tradition. Let us briefly span its beginnings – they were truly spectacular.
The people who were interested in photography and who contributed to its childhood success were most serious and capable. In the early years of the nineteenth century, a tremendous amount of creativeness and intelligence was invested in the new invention. Enthusiasm among artists, scientists, intellectuals of all kinds, and the lay public, was at a high pitch. Because of the interest in and demand for a new picture-making medium, technical development was astonishingly rapid.
The aesthetic counterpart of such rapid growth is to be seen in photographers like Brady, Jackson, O’Sullivan, Nadar, and their contemporaries. There was such a boom in technical progress, as has not been surpassed even today. The recently published History of Photography by J. M. Eder, translated by Edward Epstean, documents this acceleration in detail.
America played a healthy and vital part in the rise of photography. American genius took to the new medium like the proverbial duck to water. An extremely interesting study of photography in the United States – an important book for everyone – is Robert Taft’s Photography and the American Scene. Here the material and significant growth of the medium is integrated with the social and economic growth of our country.
In photography, America neither lagged nor slavishly imitated, and we can boast of a sound American tradition. Portraits flourished as in no other country. The Civil War created a demand for millions of “likenesses” of the young men marching off to the front. The newness of our country was of course another stimulus to growth, with many people sending pictures of themselves to relatives left behind in the westward movement, or to prospective brides and husbands in the “Old Country.” The migratory, restless population of the United States flowed west, over the Alleghenies from Pennsylvania into Ohio and other states of the Western Reserve, past the Mississippi and into the west; and wherever they went, they left little hoards, little treasures of old photographs – invaluable archives for the historian today. In the winning of the frontier, photographers also played their part, going with U. S. Geologic Survey expeditions after the Civil War. Among these, William H. Jackson stands as a shining example.
This organic use for photography produced thousands of straight-forward, competent operators, whereas in England there were comparatively few; apparently because a monopoly of all patents tied up the photographic process and prevented the spread of interest in and use of the new invention. Here in the United States, it was virtually impossible to make such a monopoly stick.
This ferment and enthusiasm produced fine results. Our daguerreotypes were superb. They were acclaimed all over Europe and systematically won all the first prizes at the international exhibitions. People were wild with enthusiasm for these realistic “speaking likenesses,” and everybody was doing it. In fact, anyone could afford the photograph, whereas before only the wealthy could pay the price to have their portraits painted. As a result, the photographic business flourished.
After a whole-hearted start with Yankee ingenuity, money got into photography along with pseudo-artists; commercialism developed with a bang. And as with any business which, as it grows, serves the greatest common denominator, so with photography. Cash took over. Instead of the honest, realistic likeness, artificial props with phony settings began to be used. A period of imitating the unreal set in. Supply houses sprang up, with elaborate Grecian urns and columns and fancy backdrops – all for the greatest possible show and ostentation. Retouching and brush work also set in. What was thought to be imitation or emulation of painting became rampant.
It need not be added that the imitation was of bad painting, because it had to be bad, dealing largely or wholly with the sentimental, the trite and pretty, the picturesque. Thus photography was torn from its moorings, the whole essence of which is realism.
Much of this was due to a terrible plague, imported from England in the form of Henry Peach Robinson. He became the shining light of photography, charged large prices, took ribbon after ribbon. He lifted composition bodily from painting, but the ones he chose were probably some of the worst examples in history. Greatest disaster of all, he wrote a book in 1869 entitled Pictorial Photography. His system was to flatter everything. He sought to correct what the camera saw. The inherent genius and dignity of the human subject was denied.
Typical of his sentimental pictures were his titles, and titles of other photographers of the period: “Poor Joe,” “Hard Times,” “Fading Away,” “Here Comes Father,” “Intimate Friends,” “Romantic Landscape,” “By the Stream,” “End of a Winter’s Day,” “Kiss of Dew,” “Fingers of Morning.” If some of the subject matter and titles are not too far removed from some of today’s crop of pictorialists, then obviously the coincidence of similar thinking has the same sentimental unrealistic fundation in common. This Robinsonian school had an influence second to none – it stuck, simply, because it made the practice and theory of photography easy. In other words, flattery pays off. Thus today there are still many photographers of the Pictorial School who continue to emulate the “master” of 1869.
As a popular art form, photography has expanded and intensified its activity in recent years. The most noticeable trend has been the widespread publication of articles and books on How-To-Do-It. Yet what is more important now is What-To-Do-With-It. That very widespread distribution which gives photography much of its strength and power, demands that there be a greater sense of awareness on the part of photographers and editors alike.
Unfortunately, along with growth and the strength it signifies, goes the possibility of a decline in our photographic sensibilities and output. Actually, the progress of photography is frequently delayed by inadequate equipment, which needs fundamental, far-reaching improvement. This is not to condemn the industry as a whole, but rather certain segments of it, for their stationary outlook and lack of proper perspective. Photography gains much of its strength from the vast participation of the amateur, and of course this is the market where mass production thrives.
But – it is high time industry paid attention to the serious and expert opinion of experienced photographers, and to the needs of the professional worker as well. This is important because a good photographer cannot fulfill the potential of contemporary photography if he is handicapped with equipment and materials made for amateurs only, or simply for a quick turnover. The camera, the tripod, and other picture-taking necessities, too often designed by draftsmen who never took a serious picture in their lives, must be vastly better machines if they are to free the photographer creatively, instead of dominating his thinking.
Many photographers spend too much time in the darkroom, with the result that creative camera work is seriously interfered with. The stale vogue of drowning in technique and ignoring content adds to the pestilence and has become, for many, part of today’s general hysteria. “. . . and craftsmanship I set up as a pedestal for art; Became the merest craftsman; to my fingers I lent a docile, cold agility, And sureness to my ear. I stifled sounds, And then dissected music like a corpse, Checked harmony by algebraic rules.”
Apart from the foregoing gripes, what then makes a picture a creative piece of work? We know it cannot be just technique. Is it content – and if so, what is content? These are basic questions that enlightened photographers must answer for themselves.
Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term: selectivity.
To define selection, one may say that it should be focused on the kind of subject matter which hits you hard with its impact and excites your imagination to the extent that you are forced to take it. Pictures are wasted unless the motive power which impelled you to action is strong and stirring. The motives or points of view are bound to differ with each photographer, and herein lies the important difference which separates one approach from another. Selection of proper picture content comes from a fine union of trained eye and imaginative mind.
To chart a course, one must have a direction. In reality, the eye is no better than the philosophy behind it. The photographer creates, evolves a better, more selective, more acute seeing eye by looking ever more sharply at what is going on in the world. Like every other means of expression, photography, if it is to be utterly honest and direct, should be related to the life of the times – the pulse of today. The photograph may be presented as finely and artistically as you will; but to merit serious consideration, must be directly connected with the world we live in.
What we need is a return, on a mounting spiral of historic understanding, to the great tradition of realism. Since ultimately the photograph is a statement, a document of the now, a greater responsibility is put on us. Today, we are confronted with reality on the vastest scale mankind has known. Some people are still unaware that reality contains unparalleled beauties. The fantastic and unexpected, the ever-changing and renewing is nowhere so exemplified as in real life itself. Once we understand this, it exercises a dynamic compulsion on us, and a photo-document is born.
The term “documentary” is sometimes applied in a rather derogatory sense to the type of photography which to me seems logical. To connect the term “documentary” with only the “ash-can school” is so much sheer nonsense, and probably stems from the bad habit of pigeon-holing and labelling everything like the well-known 57 varieties. Actually, documentary pictures include every subject in the world – good, bad, indifferent. I have yet to see a fine photograph which is not a good document. Those that survive from the past invariably are, and can be recognized in the work of Brady, Jackson, Nadar, Atget, and many others. Great photographs have “magic” – a revealing word that comes from Steichen. I believe the “magic” photographers are documentarians only in the broadest sense of the word.
According to Webster, anything “documentary” is: “that which is taught, evidence, truth, conveying information, authentic judgment.” Add to that a dash of imagination, take for granted adequate technique to realize the intention, and a photographer’s grasp will eventually equal his reach – as he turns in the right direction at the crossroads.
This text by Berenice Abbott was first edited in Universal Photo Almanac, pp. 42-47. 1951.
It is published here with the permission of Ronald A. Kurtz for Commerce Graphics LTD, Inc
Cet article est reproduit avec l’aimable permission de Ronald A. Kurtz, pour Commerce Graphics LTD, Inc.
Berenice Abbott (1898 — 1991), photographies